Let's say a human engineer comes across an alien electronics lab.

It occurs to me that electrons are electrons, if the aliens are at a similar state of development to us then at least the simplest (discrete?) components might be similar in operating principle and should be recognisable. On the other hand, alien electronics could be very different.

Assume that:

  • the aliens are at a similar level of technology to what we have today.

  • the engineer has stumbled upon the equivalent of a university electronics lab, well equipped makerspace or very well equipped hobbyist's workshop.

  • the aliens have similar requirements for their components that we do, mainly being cheap to produce and reasonably reliable. They identify components by sight, like most humans.

  • the only tool the engineer has with earth-style units is his trusty multimeter.

How different are alien electronics likely to be? What sort of components would the engineer be able to recognise first and how? How quickly could he begin working with alien tools and components?

Having read the answers and comments so far, I would like to clarify some points. I'm sorry if I did not make myself clear before.

  • The aliens are not significantly more advanced than us. Their electronics are based on the same principles as most Earth electronics, generally not bio-electricity, weights and pulleys, etc. Memristors (which, admittedly, I only just learned about) are fair game.

  • Silicon is a fairly common element. It would be strange if the aliens did not have access to it. Ditto for anything else required by Earth style electronics.

  • The alien lab certainly has more tools than a mere multimeter, except they are all marked in a different language. Addition: The engineer has access to a power-supply with a knob for selecting voltage and limiting current. He doesn't know what the units are however. (I foresee calibration involving a melted piece of wire...) Likewise, oscilloscopes, logic analysers, etc., are available, but are all marked in alien units. (Anything a well equipped electronics lab would have, the aliens also have.)

(I don't think I have broken (m)any answers here, if I have, sorry.)

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    $\begingroup$ How much stuff is he willing to let the black smoke out of? Does he have breathing gear in case what the aliens make the components out of is not healthy for humans? $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2015 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how this is too broad to be honest, looks fine to me. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jun 17, 2015 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @WilSelwood I doubt he cares about accidentally frying anything. For the moment we will also assume that he has adequate ventilation. (also isn't it magic blue smoke? ;D) $\endgroup$
    – amziraro
    Jun 17, 2015 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ According to Independence Day, aliens will use common Earth protocols such as telnet and ssh, so I'm pretty sure they will use the same, e.g., resistor colour codes and part numbers. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2015 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Amziraro, actually, no. Many times the company that made the part will request the service as a kind of "post mortem" for products that fail in unexpected ways. And the government can really do what they want with things they "find." $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2015 at 13:46

16 Answers 16


The trouble here would be dealing with more complex components.

There are two main types of electrical components. Active and Passive components.

Passive components tend to be simpler, your resisters, capacitors, transformers and so forth. These it should be possible for our engineer to work out given his multi-meter and some basic knowledge. Does it measure as having any resistance? (Resistor) Does it allow an AC current to pass? (Capacitor) Is it made of a lump of ferrous metal wrapped in two sets of wires? (Transformer) Though our engineer will probably still destroy quite a few components working this out.

Active components on the other hand are an entirely different kettle of fish. Most active components look like a blob of plastic with some metal sticking out and some markings to tell what they are. Think every thing from the classic transistor to the CPU inside your computer.

Almost every engineer when faced with a component he doesn't know will stick the code printed on it into Google to find the datasheet. Our poor engineer doesn't have this option. (Language being the big barrier here) Many many human components are encased in very similar packages, this makes standardisation of machines to produce things easier so I would expect the aliens have probably done some thing similar.

Components These are three components taken from my arduino starter kit. One is a temperature sensor and the other two are transistors. Good luck telling them apart if you don't have Google to look up the codes.

With out knowing the correct way to wire up the thing the only options are experiment and destroy lots of them, or find one in an existing circuit and try and work out what its doing.

Neither of these options are easy or exactly safe. Who knows what the aliens make the components out of. I hope they phased out lead already for the sake of our engineer.

Having a few extra tools may make things a lot easier. An oscilloscope and power supply would be extremely helpful.

Edit: from question edit

They should be able to identify the other tools. It may be hard to tell a power supply from a multi-meter at first but it should be reasonably easy given the multimeter and a willingness to blow up a few components.

The power supply can be calibrated using some thing they can identify as a resistor and their own multimeter. Once he has worked out the voltages the dial gives out he should write a new marking sheet if it has a control nob, or a translation of the symbols for different values displayed otherwise. This will let them figure out the numbering system reasonably, which should also let them start to make more sense of other components.

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    $\begingroup$ I hope they phased out lead already Why should they phase out delicious lead, when their biology is compatible with lead, mercury and so on. They will probably make their plastic handles out of material which is toxic to us..... And good luck identifying resistor-codes in different UV-colored shades ^^ $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Jun 18, 2015 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ @falco indeed that was my point. Though they won't be decoding resistors by colour codes, I haven't seen a multimeter in a long time that didn't have the ability to measure resistance by putting a tiny voltage through the probes. I find it really useful being colour blind. Stupid brown bands. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2015 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ Anyone who ever worked with electronics knows that the lead-free solders are worse than lead, even environmentally. They don't contain lead, but they contain a lot of other, less well-known but equally or even more hazardous chemicals, and their manufacturing process makes a lot more pollution than the one for parts with lead. But lead-free solders degrade quickly, so it's a good lobby for planned obsolescence. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Jun 18, 2015 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @VSZ I wish I could add more upvotes to that comment-. Only a government can decide that poisoning the environment (more or less permanently by introducing mutgens from discarded board degredation) is better than contact with lead $\endgroup$
    – Jim B
    Jun 19, 2015 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ The one on the left is the temperature sensor, correct? $\endgroup$
    – Outurnate
    Jun 21, 2015 at 18:17

As an electrical engineer myself, I'd say it would be very hard to figure out what was going on without having some sort of introduction to the alien's technology.

There's a few reasons for this:

1. It's hard for us to do it with our own technology: Even for human parts if you can't read labeling and don't have any datasheets, it's extremely hard to figure out what individual chips do. A chip could be a counter, a microcontroller or an ASIC. Even with human electronics, it's a non-trivial process to reverse engineer a PCB. (See this interesting talk about it: Deconstructing the Circuit Board Sandwich)

2. They might have fundamentally different discrete components: For instance they could use memristors as a discrete component instead of a transistor, besides that, who's to say they've developed transistors as the basis of their decision making electronics? Our transistors have evolved so much because we have readily available semiconductors (silicon from sand). Maybe the aliens don't have such access.

To try to figure out the alien technologies, we'd probably need access to some highly specialized tools. Think xray machines, acoustic microscopy machines, etc. These would be used to examine alien IC's. We'd probably also need to destroy some of their IC's to study them (that's really the only way to probe things inside the IC..)

In short, he probably wouldn't be able to learn very much with just his multimeter and no introduction to the alien language.

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    $\begingroup$ Just got in before me. Good answer. I think I understated just how horrible this problem would be. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2015 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Ahh.. Haha.. thats confusing.. fundamentally different discrete components doesn't mean 'fundamental types of passive discrete electronics'. Who said anything about things being passive? Who knows, maybe they use magnetic circuits instead of electrical ones? Those would be fundamentally different. Also, you can't interchange a capacitor and an inductor electrically, but you could still interchange them functionally. Like in timing circuits. With a cap, you measure voltage, with an inductor you could do current instead. You get the same timing result, but use different components. $\endgroup$
    – Martin_xs6
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ I find it hard to believe their fundamental components could be very different from ours and still be recognizable as electronics. Ours are: a bunch of wire, a gap in the wire, and a coil of wire. They are incredibly simple and obviously versatile. If their electronics are indeed electronics, they would certainly have discovered these effects and would be using them. Diodes and transistors (two semiconductors and semiconductor sandwich) are a little more complex, but as long as they have access to doped semiconductors they are pretty likely to be discovered as well. $\endgroup$
    – evankh
    Jun 18, 2015 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ @knave: Just Imagine they dont have the minerals on their planet we ave here. But others. So they would face completly different problems which would be solved in ways we cant imagine because we dont have the resources they have neither. So maybe they would even develop thoose fundamental components in a way we cant imagine, because they had the posibility to research in materials that arent available here. So they have knowledge we dont have and just invented fundamentals quite different. $\endgroup$
    – Zaibis
    Jun 18, 2015 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ @knave Quite possible that they could use crystalline structures or something else entirely. Star Gate proves it... $\endgroup$
    – Basic
    Jun 19, 2015 at 17:51

During my university studies (electronics-related), there were some big surprises when we got to study microwave circuitry. Look for example at this circuit: microwave stub tuner

See those seemingly open and closed circuits coming out diagonally from the horizontal basic circuits? Look particularly at the first one. Until that point in my studies (3rd year IIRC!), any of those shorts would render the rest of the circuit parallel to it moot, because, well... it's shorted! No?

Well, no. The moment you start using high frequencies, high enough that the wavelength is similar to the length of the transmission lines, then those transmission lines start having a serious effect - to the point that you implement capacitors and chokes with simple pieces of transmission line. As in here: these line stubs are implementing filters. In real life, those could be pieces of wire "going nowhere", or traces in a PCB "going nowhere", or even pipes (AKA waveguides)!

How the circuit would look in a PCB

So, answering your question: you don't even need to have unknown components to confound someone without the right theoretical background. A multimeter is the only thing available? ... well, at least make the multimeter protected enough so your engineer won't die the moment he probes something he shouldn't ;P

The question was edited to say that the engineer has more instruments, only in "alien units". So you seem to keep thinking that the problem is the units. Well, how are those aliens physiologically? Maybe they have better hearing (absolute pitch for example?) but worse sight than us and then might prefer to use an "audio oscilloscope" which instead of drawing in a screen emits the waves in the alien audible range? That would make things complicated, even if units were the same...

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    $\begingroup$ Yep, this was my "WTF" moment in ElecEng. $\endgroup$
    – Basic
    Jun 19, 2015 at 17:56

I like many of the answers here but didn't see one aspect of this covered that I think is very important.


But only if we are close to or more advanced than the aliens in electronics.

We only have a chance of figuring it out if we have the scientific underpinnings to understand the devices being used. If the aliens are too advanced, we'll see a device that not only has no comparable device in our electronics but we don't even understand how it works.

What are the relative technology levels?

400 year difference

If you hand modern 2015 electronics to people 400 years ago and ask them how it works, what would they say?

Witchcraft, magic, or some other superstition most likely. No one even understood the most basic principals of electricity, let alone electrical circuits. Forgot about electronic components.

100 year difference

If you hand modern 2015 electronics to people 100 years ago and ask them how it works, what would they say?

A knowledgeable engineering or scientist would correctly identify wires and could probably determine which lines were AC vs. DC. However, they wouldn't understand much about how electrical circuits work and still wouldn't know anything about electronics (e.g. transistors and other components).

I suspect that if they microscopically examined a chip they wouldn't be able to even see the printed circuits. If they did they wouldn't have a clue about how to manufacture such a thing. Even worse, they wouldn't have the theoretical basis for understanding how it worked.

50 year difference

If you hand modern 2015 electronics to people 50 years ago and ask them how it works, what would they say?

The basic theories and all of the components that we commonly use now were known then. Microscopic examination of a chip with the right equipment likely would reveal that it was manufactured. They would be able to tell that it was supposed to do something but they wouldn't know what nor would they be able to manufacture it.

They wouldn't know the likely voltages and currents needed to activate the various components so their testing would likely be destructive.

5 Years Difference

If you hand modern 2015 electronics to people 5 years ago and ask them how it works, what would they say?

Well if it was humans, they'd likely have the future electronics already on the drawing board or in R&D. We might not be able to replicate the manufacturing techniques but we'd have a very good idea of how they did it and how we might be able to in the near future. Chip factories plan when to switch over to new fabrication techniques years in advance so our factories might even be preparing for cutting over to the techniques use on the chips we found.

What does this mean?

Use this as our guidelines, in order to have a chance of understanding alien technology would require us to be more advanced or not more than a decade or two behind them. If not, we might not even possess the theoretical understanding required to understand the device.

Even now, we're just getting to the point that we might be able to start including memristors in our electronics repertoire.

On a side note, there's a whole industry that builds "test stands" for boards and chips. You plug the chip or board in and the stand tells you what works and what doesn't work. If you assume that we could get the volts and amps required to run the electronics figured out, then you could simply apply signals to the various leads and see what came out.

This would take a long, long time to complete the testing and formulate an idea of what the outputs mean. You'd likely automate the testing and we'd likely compare the output with the outputs with those from electronics that we have.

If the alien electronics didn't have human counterparts, the chances of figuring it out would be remote.


How different are alien electronics likely to be?


Passive components should be recognisable as passive components within seconds due to their simplicity. Active components would be recognisable as active ones because of their proximity to passive components.

Exactly what each passive component does is more involved.

There are four fundamental types of passive components. You can chart their relationship like this:

Two-terminal circuit elements

(source: Wikipedia)

At this point, it's all driven by the laws of physics, so alien electronics would behave like human electronics.

What sort of components would the engineer be able to recognise first and how?

Two-leg passive components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors. Using the above relational diagram, it's not difficult to conduct simple tests to work out what each component is. The exact properties of each component is more difficult. It's easy to say "Oh, hey. These purple triangle things are capacitors" but it's far harder to say "This purple triangle thing is a 6.3uF capacitor."

But to be fair, we have trouble doing that with human electronics today. What we do to solve that is write things down in standard notations.

We mark resistance with a standard colour-coding scheme;

A 2260 ohm 1% precision resistor

(source: Wikipedia)

We have similar systems for capacitors and inductors. It isn't unreasonable to think that the aliens may also have standardised labelling systems. What your engineer needs to do is to start measuring every discrete components they can, and correlating that with any identifying markings on said components.

How quickly could he begin working with alien tools and components?

If your engineer doesn't have a background in Signals Intelligence (or brings a friend who does), then they're going to spend a lot of initial time working out the units. This is just for passive components. Once they know the alien basics, they'll be able to expand from there.

But when it comes to active parts, unless your engineer gets access to the alien datasheets on the components in question, they'll never achieve much.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah but if someone hands you a bin of mixed resistors and capacitors, it isn't easy to sort them. If I had to test them to figure it out, I'd throw them away and buy new ones, lol $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jun 18, 2015 at 1:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim2B I've done exactly that - a family member who was en electronic engineer passed away and since I'm in the same field, the components/tools were passed on to me. Unfortunately, someone decided to help by putting all those bits that looked the same in the same box... $\endgroup$
    – Basic
    Jun 21, 2015 at 13:32

There's no reason to imagine that anything they do is comprehensible to an engineer with just a simple multimeter.

This comes to mind: http://amasci.com/elect/mcoils.html

Current electronic circuits use electric fields and currents, typically, and not magnetic fields in coils. While things like inductors do make limited use of magnetic fields, a culture that made use of magnetic fields, rather than electric ones, could completely baffle just about anyone with a multimeter.

In addition, there's no reason why we can assume that these aliens have standardized on anything that we would consider reasonable. For example, they might have standardized on 3-state logic (+, 0, and -), or on something like analog logic.

On top of all that, there's no reason why their interpretations of physics should be similar to ours. Although it may be hard for us to conceive, there is nothing sacred about the way we consider electronics. Potentially, chips could be optical in nature, and exploit properties of optics and quantum mechanics that are considered as trivia for us. Even if you ignore the issues surrounding datasheets and Integrated circuits, electronics is one of the largest fields. If you took a specialist in robotics and showed him high-frequency RF electronics, I would expect them to appear extremely confusing.

Beyond this, there are all kinds of things that you could do with electron streams or more exotic components. For example, if the system were based on advanced forms of vacuum tubes, memristors, or op-amps, then I think you could quite easily baffle someone, even with a simple circuit.


Couple of stray thoughts to add to what's already been said:

Fundamental first question is: What is universal and what is coincidental?

Some things are basic facts of science, or can be proven by simple mathematics. To take a simple example: Aliens will not have triangles whose angles do not total 180 degrees. Aliens will not have Platonic solids that we have never thought of. Or in science, assuming that our chemistry and physics are not totally wrong, aliens will not have stable elements that we are unfamiliar with. Etc.

At the opposite extreme, I would be very surprised if aliens who had previously had no contact with humans used USB cables. I mean, cables with the same number of wires, and those wires arranged in the same order and performing the same functions. There are too many details in there that could easily have been done a different way.

As we've never met an alien race, it's difficult to say how much technology is "inevitable". At a fundamental level: Would aliens even use electricity? Or would they have some alternative technology that accomplishes a similar purpose but works in some totally different way? Maybe aliens use a form of energy that we have not even discovered. Just like people 200 years ago had only the vaguest knowledge of electricity, maybe aliens use some form of energy that we don't presently understand at all.

Or more plausibly: Maybe aliens build machines using some principles that we are familiar with but haven't built a technology around. Like their machines all use magnetism, or gravity, or water running through hoses.

I tend to doubt it, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Assuming they use electricity, I think they would have to have concepts like voltage and resistance. Those would seem to be fundamental scientific truths. Could they build sophisticated devices that do not have wires and resistors and transformers and transistors and so on? I don't see how they could not use these basic devices.

As others have discussed, identifying any particular alien electronic component, even if it is just like a component we use, could be difficult. Is there any fundamental reason why resistors have to be cylindrical and have color-coded stripes on them? Why couldn't someone make square or pyramid-shaped resistors? Etc. I'd have no confidence that I could recognize a component just by looking at it. Presumably with sufficient test equipment you could figure out the simpler components.

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    $\begingroup$ Build sophisticated devices without transistors? Yes. You can even build a whole digital programmable computer without using a single transistor, if you were so inclined. Even if we don't consider vacuum tubes and similar technology, you can certainly use relays, which are found in many solid-state applications as well. It would likely be quite large and slow, draw a lot of power and produce a lot of noise, but it's technically perfectly doable. I think someone has even posted a Youtube video showing one in operation... $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 18, 2015 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, of course you can build computers without transistors. People did it for a few decades before transistors were invented. I'm sure if we supposed that some alien race had never invented capacitors, but otherwise had all the same electronic components that we have, they could find ways to build machines without capacitors. But what I was trying to say was, I would think they would need a large overlap with the components we know. Maybe they don't have transistors but they do have vacuum tubes, or they don't have transformers but ... I don't know any other device that can step voltage up ... $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jun 18, 2015 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ ... or down, but assuming there is no such thing, either the aliens have figured out a different way to do it, or they manage to design devices that function without it. Etc. But the question is, could they have little or no overlap with the sort of components we know? Could they not have resistors, capacitors, transistors, or transformers, and still build functioning electronic devices? I find it hard to imagine. But can I say it's impossible? $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jun 18, 2015 at 20:13

No, this is not at all likely, and we can prove this here without alien technology.

I can source a marked component from one country (say, China), send it to an engineer in another country (say, the US) and many components would be unusable for that engineer regardless of their testing with a multimeter, oscilloscope, etc.

They may be able to figure out it can be used as a resistor - in the lab environment, but it might turn out to be a thermistor, and change radically when exposed to a different temperature. It might look like a transistor, with a small black transistor-like case, and it may act like a diode in the lab, but when put in an enclosure it might stop working as a diode and start working as a transistor because it's really a photo transistor and its operation changes based on the ambient light.

Aliens might be using magnetic fields more than we do, and might have "passive" devices that operate differently based on their physical orientation to each other, in addition to their electrical connection.

But even if we can discern the basic behavior of a particular device, we can't easily test its limits. Let's say we correctly find an NPN transistor - or a device that behaves substantially like one - what can we make out of it that would work reliably? Let's say you make a simple AM radio receiver. It works acceptably, so you take the same components and build an AM radio transmitter. It fails with a puff of smoke because you're running too much power through the final amplifier transistor. You would have to go through tens, hundreds, or more of specific devices to find the few transistors that are linear and can handle the power load you want to put on them.

It isn't so much an issue of finding the basic elements, it's also knowing their limits, and other characteristics that will allow you to build something from them.

And this is for basic/simple passives and switching elements.

Modern electronics include many more complex active elements up to and including digital processors. Who knows, perhaps they've perfected analog processors, but even if they are miraculously using digital computing elements that follow the Von Neuman or Harvard architecture and use binary math, we have little to no hope of figuring out how to program them in years, nevermind months, nevermind days.

The question then is how complex a device is this engineer going to be called on to build?

A flashlight - yeah, sure, she can do that.

An AM or FM radio receiver - perhaps.

A transmitter of any sort - That's tough. I'd say maybe - with a lot of time and testing. Weeks, maybe?

Anything more complex is practically impossible. You could use hand waving and explain that this is some sort of savant engineer, but it would be extraordinarily jarring to those without industrial strength suspenders of disbelief.

The fact that we already have this issue between different countries suggests that doing this without help across the galaxy is pretty ludicrous.

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    $\begingroup$ A (VLF to MF range) AM transmitter is easy to make, though; for the simplest one, you need a power source, an oscillator (a tuned circuit could do in a pinch, which means one each known-value inductor and capacitor plus some math to determine the resultant oscillator frequency), some linear component to mix the oscillator output and modulating signal, some cabling to connect everything, and (optional) some second linear component to act as a power amplifier plus a filter (another tuned circuit) and some sort of antenna. Assuming our hero knows the components, this should be easy to build. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ A transmitter does not necessarily need to use high-powered parts -- a wireless doorbell button can get by just fine on a PN2222A in a TO-92 or SOT-23 ;) (And can be heard further than you think, too -- look up the term 'QRP' for details) $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jun 20, 2015 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, depending on the story a short range, poorly tuned, low power transmitter might fulfill a need, and might be built out of alien components. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Davis
    Jun 20, 2015 at 15:56

There are certainly alternative ways to build electronics. Vacuum tubes were the standard for around 40 years, until the interesting effects of doped silicon were discovered. But the effects of doped silicon weren't an accidental discovery - they were predicted by sufficient knowledge of atomic structure and electron energy levels, and this is a universal (literally!) fact. Also there's a limited amount that a vacuum tube can be miniaturised (the heat, high voltage/current and protective atmosphere impose some serious engineering challenges, which again is universal), which means any alien civilisation with a similar tech level is not going to be using them.

Silicon isn't necessarily the answer - GaAs or other solutions are equally possible. We have plenty of silicon so it's the obvious choice, but other worlds may have other chemical makeups.

Finding an alien race with roughly the same tech level is going to be quite a challenge though. Just finding another alien race is rare enough. But you only need to go back one generation to find home computers that were playing blocky games, and business computers that were room-filling beasts. Back another generation, and the only computers were warehouse-filling monsters, and mostly you only got discrete components. Back another generation, and the first computers were just being used for code-breaking, and mostly you had to make your own components. Back another generation from there, and "computer" was a job description for (mostly) women working out calculations on paper.

There was still a lot of interesting tech back then - it's fascinating how the Victorians implemented mechanical control systems with differential gears, spinning weights and other funky steampunk stuff. But that's off-topic for this question.


Imagine those little alien components with the tiny writing on the flat parts ...what if none of them were using use voltages under 1,000V? When cut open, they instantly stop working. Turns out that they were all microscopic vacuum tubes, using cold-cathode Field Emission. Even their diodes, even their white-colored fused-quartz solar panels, hundreds of thousands of sodium phototubes in flat arrays, which generate power from the UV part of solar spectrum. No silicon anywhere, just silicon-dioxide.

Or instead, imagine all of it using 50KV. They'd never discovered batteries, so they used high-voltage-low-current for everything; generators based on whirling or vibrating capacitor plates. It's what we disdainfully dismiss as weak, unusable "static electricity." For them, 1000Megs is a fair conductor, and 1Megohm is a dead short.

Or, what if our own rare use of high power ultrasound and quartz fiber acoustic waveguides were their main choice of electronics? Acoustic solid state switching, "sound-Transistors?" What would that stuff look like when converted into circuit boards and ICs?

HG Wells, for "War of the Worlds," postulated a Martian civilization which never invented the wheel, yet was more advanced than Earth. Not ridiculous, since when the Spanish invaded, the Mayan civilization was similarly advanced in govt and organization, but hadn't yet invented the wheel. Well, they had, since they had wheeled toys. (I can imagine a Mayan engineer being disgusted over the concept of using baby rattles and diapers and ridiculous kid's toys to construct serious military hardware, much less to run a powerful civilization.)

Further, what if the aliens stumbled across, let's call it the "R-device," but we'd never fount it ourselves. It was a physics invention to rival fire, or metal tools, or the wheel, and they had it but we didn't. Well, we actually had it, but it happened in 1880, and was ridiculed and never used for anything much, and is still buried in old reports. Not a question of "advanced," more a question of the level of scoffing in their science/engineering communities. Everything in their electronics was R-device based, and totally unrecognizable to us, like a vacuum-tubes civilization encountering transistors.

Heh, the transistor itself was almost lost this way. Invented in 1923, prof. Lilienfeld even built a transistor radio and took it around to manufacturers. He met a brick wall of universal hostile disbelief, and finally gave up and retired to the Caribbean (on his money from inventing the electrolytic capacitor.) His was his thin-film MOSFET deposited on glass. It was forgotten, and only decades later did Bell Labs re-discover his patents. They couldn't work on FETs, since they considered it worthless (expired patents, no way to profit.) Almost by accident they discovered the BJT transistor, completely patentable, and so the tech world went crazy. And along with their first published paper on their "Crystal Triode," they published another paper on Lilienfeld's mosfet, but hid any reference to the inventor, and then lied, claiming that his transistor didn't work. Later students built it and found it worked fine. (Scientists concealing source references in research papers? Flagrantly lying? Heh, Bell Labs was a business, not a science lab, people always forget that.) Only two decades later did anyone start doing serious work with FETs again ...forty years after the original inventor had discovered the fact that zero manufacturers had any interest in miniature pocket-size electronic devices. No money in it! How can they ignore a transistor radio in 1928? Simple. "(sneering laugh) If this was important, scientists would already know about it, and OTHER manufacturers would have jumped on it already."

Imagine all the useful components which failed to pass the human hurdle of disbelief, while the aliens welcomed them and put to wide use. There might be one or two examples. Or there might be hundreds.

Threepenny Opera: Those we see, are in the daylight. Those in darkness are not seen.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting answer to read, but in your exposition, it seems you forgot to actually answer the question. Could a human engineer comprehend alien electronics? (If you feel you did answer that, I would encourage you to make the answer to it more clear. Sometimes just highlighting the important part using **bold face** is enough.) $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ The first two, engineers wouldn't figure out, since it's not obvious conventional stuff. But it's not impossible, so a team of contemporary scientists, going through it with microtomes, SEM microscope, and high-res x-ray, they'd end up with my description above. $\endgroup$
    – wbeaty
    Jun 20, 2015 at 7:22
  • $\begingroup$ Read OP question first: all mine are examples to show that it doesn't have to be circuitry & semiconductor like OP thinks. The 3rd, "hypersound transistors," might remain unrecognized unless we could get it working and detect the signals/routing behaviors. The fourth involves a psychology barrier, like Mayans trying to figure out exotic wheel-based machinery, perhaps failing. And "R-device" might be a breakthrough far too big and weird, "magic" to confuse top physicists. Eventually a genius might make the discovery separately, then in hindsight the alien tech suddenly becomes explainable. $\endgroup$
    – wbeaty
    Jun 20, 2015 at 7:48

In evolution there's a term for when two distinct species have the same phenotype but arrived at that state through distinct evolutionary paths. I believe that idea applies here.

For example, transistors started out as giant pieces of random junk then got better and better and better. The requirements for smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper (FLC) would hold sway in the alien economy as well. Each change to the transistor came by way of innovations intended to better meet the FLC mandate (and make bigger profits). Our versions of the components are the way they are because we tried other form factors/configurations/standards and those didn't work as well or were superseded by something better. (this argument implies pure survival of the fittest but reality isn't this way. First mover advantage has a huge impact too.)

Implementation details such as some parts of the form-factor for a component would be different because an alien designed it. Likewise the standards voltages/currents in the electronics could be different because a different set of individuals had input during discussions at the standards making body (AISO - Alien International Standards Organization). Maybe high voltage would be 6 volts instead of our 5 volts.


There are alternative ways to build electronics. For instance, an amplifier may be built not just from vacuum tubes, bipolar transistors or field effect transistors. An alien may choose to build an amplifier from Gunn diodes, transformers, tunnel diodes or optical, and this will work. These alternative solutions are known for human engineers. They are not as efficient as widespread solutions, but in an alien planet this may be different.

Hence understanding the alien electronics may require very wide expertise, applying knowledge that is available but not widespread.


Heh, * I * might be able to figure it out, since that's my daily work. Decoding alien tech (old research instruments from the 1970s) where no documents exist, and the owners have no clue of what's inside the box.

I do "cheat," since I know what the box is supposed to do overall, but the (non electronics) details are sometimes bizarre, and often I have to figure it out from scratch. Recent example, little white 2mm ceramic pancake shapes used in high power RF. Open circuit. Not capacitors. They turn out to be noble gas discharge elements, probably used as surge suppressors on connectors in noisy industrial environments, but here being triggered by sub-microsecond voltage pulses, used to short-out a quarter-wave stub pcb-pattern with few-nanoseconds rise time. Very cool idea for shaping fast VHF pulses at 100s-watts level. Or last week: why would anyone pump fifty watts of 27MHz into a piece of glass? That trick I'd seen before, back when laser printers were the size of a refrigerator on its side. Or more subtle: little white insulated wires ...which all turn out to be coaxial cables, like #28 gauge.

Ever seen superconductor magnet parts, where copper is used as insulating supports?



I think your intuition is correct. For the most part electronics are designed for function, not to look pretty. The aliens may well use different measurements, units, signs. They may have different electrical standards (so a USB plug would be totally different for example) but the core components themselves when you get right down to transistors, capacitors and wires, would all be very recognizable.

Due to the difference in units and interfaces using earth and alien electronics together would be tricky, but even so it would be possible.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "so a USB plug would be totally different for example" this sounds like you assume they have USB ... $\endgroup$
    – PlasmaHH
    Jun 18, 2015 at 10:28
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @PlasmaHH If they have computers, odds are good they have something akin to USB, and in fact, perhaps even something they call (in their language) USB. The idea "let's take these 5 different devices with 5 different cables and make a cable that can service all of them!" is a pretty simple one, and if they have any kind of standardization, it'll likely happen soon enough. Now, what they have won't be USB, and you probably couldn't stick a USB plug on their cables and connect their peripherals. (Unless, by chance, they have ~5V and 4 leads, in which case an appropriate driver might be devised.) $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2015 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ A reliable report on recent computer interface development by a team under Dr. Richter on the Moon is in the film "Iron Sky" at 21:29. Their protype interface "Universal Systematic Binding" or USB for short achieved compatible operation with a standard terrestrial USB device but lacked remote charging function. That lack was pretext for deployment of an invasion force to Earth. $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2015 at 16:02

If we were to encounter alien technology, even if the aliens had only attain a level of technology similar to ours (world wide communication and transportation network with limited space travel,) several factors may make their technology difficult to comprehend.

Alien technology may not be linear

Humans think in a very linear way. Our circuits contain components that connect to other components through linear pathways (wires.) Also, individual components are separated into logical and functional units. Aliens may build circuits that utilize varying areas of intermingling resistance, capacitance and switching. Electricity may swirl around the board instead of follow through separate paths. This kind of circuit would be very difficult for us to understand.

Alien technology may include elements of gravity, nuclear forces, etc

Our electrical technology includes some elements of light and magnetism. Alien technology may include more. If we were to encounter a circuit that use modulated gravity in some way, it would be very difficult for us to figure out. First, we would need to fully understand how all of the circuit components (or areas) transmit data and/or energy. Then we might be able to understand the circuit as a whole.

Alien technology may be multidimensional

Our circuits occupy three dimensions, and many of our circuits can be reduced down to two dimensions. If an alien occupied more (or different) dimensions, it would be virtually impossible for us to figure out (or even full observe) their circuits. We would only be able to theoretically understand them, with help from the designers. We would also have trouble figuring our an alien circuit if the circuit was moving through time differently.

Electricity may behave differently on their planet

There is a strong possibility that electricity may flow differently on an alien planet. They may have stronger, weaker or multiple magnetic poles on their planet. Their sun's radiation may also interfere with electrical signals. In this case, we would have a very difficult time figuring out their circuits, if the circuits were to appear on earth. We probably wouldn't get any help form the aliens either. They would probably have no idea why their circuits stopped working once they arrived on earth.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You clearly never even took a class in electronics, never mind actually worked in it. Components are only separated for ease of design. A proper engineer does need to consider how all parts affect each other - EMC being a prime example - and it doesn't "swirl" around. Magnetic poles don't change anything. And I'm not ruling out novel N-dimensional tech or as-yet-unknown laws, but then by definition it's technology beyond what we have, which explicitly rules it out of the OP's criteria. Go back to your Star Trek books. $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2015 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ See, he would have a REALLY hard time understanding this kind of technology. $\endgroup$
    – Hoytman
    Jun 24, 2015 at 4:33

One way for our hero to identify the most basic components would be through their sheer number. There are these HUGE racks of boxes with each box containing a large number of identical components.

One rack: resistors. Second rack: capacitors. Third: inductors.

The multimeter can sort out which is which.

There are two reasons these components are so common: They are useful, and they are easy to make (and therefore cheap). This should be universal.

(The memristor other answers have talked about are not easy to make)

Beyond that, things will become difficult very quickly. They will probably find a large number of different components of various types. There are lots and lots of different things these could be and sorting this out would take a LOT of time and effort. And mistakes will be made.

If the engineer comes across some already assembled circuits this will help. Identifying some components will identify the circuit, and that will identify the remaining components. ...maybe.

However, this only holds if they are assembled by hand from the same type of components that are in the lab. Factory assembled stuff would be impossible.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer, but how would factory assembled circuits be more incomprehensible than than regular electronics? $\endgroup$
    – amziraro
    Jun 22, 2015 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ I am assuming very human-like factories here. Two reasons: Most important is that the components used will be different from the ones that are in the lab. They will probably be unmarked. They will also be smaller. Working with industrial electronics these days is a task for a robot, not a human. Note that this is a very recent trend on Earth, the last 10 years or so. $\endgroup$ Jun 24, 2015 at 8:22

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